Terrible Karma: reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
created and curated by Adeola Enigbokan and Merle Patchett
This work is self-motivated and self-funded. If you watch/listen to this work all we ask in return is that you leave a comment at the bottom of this page stating where in the world you experienced it so we can attempt to track how far it reverberates. Thanks!
Terrible Karma is a mobile sound and photographic installation exploring the global reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, on its 100th anniversary.
Terrible Karma works from the premise that ‘sound is haunting… a presence whose location in space is ambiguous and whose existence in time is transitory’ (David Toop), meshing oral histories of Triangle fire survivors with audio recordings of mega-scale garment factories in Qingyuan, China and protest songs of present-day garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia to invoke the contemporary and transnational resonances of the Triangle fire.
The title – Terrible Karma – refers to both the title of a protest song sung by Cambodian female garment workers at a union rally in Phnom Penh (July 2010 – click for translation) and to the idea that events of the garment industry past continue to haunt the present, that injustice unresolved always comes back. The work arises out of our mutual desire to mark the centenary of the Triangle factory fire whilst also exploring the constraints and conditions in which garment workers continue to work, live and die.
The work ‘takes to the streets’ on March 25th, 2011 when the sounds and photographs it presents will be projected out of a van driven through the streets of New York, stopping at various points to allow passers-by to experience the work from inside its claustrophobic confines.
Adeola and I will be out this Friday morning and afternoon (10-2) in downtown Manhattan, at Cooper Square, and near the location of the fire, at Washington Place and Greene Street. Follow the path on the map, and look out for our UHAUL truck, containing the audio-visual installation above. If you’re in town, drop by and spend some time in the back of the truck, feeling the reverberations of the fire, 100 years later.
For those not in NY the work is available to experience by watching the online version of the work posted above (to get the best effect play it full-screen by clicking on the icon between the HD and vimeo symbols on the bottom right of the screen).
You can also download the work directly from: http://vimeo.com/21261887
To just listen to the sound component of the work here it is in .wav and .mp3:
.wav: Terrible Karma_Final
To see documentation of the NY event see:
N.B. This work is self-motivated and self-funded. If you watch/listen to this work all we ask in return is that you leave a comment at the bottom of this page stating where in the world you experienced it so we can attempt to track how far it reverberates. Thanks!
Special thanks are due to Matthias Kispert, Jean Marshall, Gearóid Dolan and Will Zimmermann for helping us to make this happen.
Background and Motivation for the Work
1.5 billion garments are sewn by an estimated 40 million people working in 250,000 factories across countries designated by the UN as the world’s least developed. This army is the engine for the Cut Make Trim (CMT) part of fashion: the point in the fashion chain where the garment is assembled and sewn. Life in the CMT army is grim, particularly in Bangladesh. A report last year by the International Trade Union Confederation gave workers there the inauspicious title of “most poorly paid in the world”. The job of a garment worker is also very dangerous. On the 14th of December 2010 a fire broke out at the That’s It Sportswear factory, in Ashulia, Dhaka, killing at least 29 workers and injuring 100 more. The facility is run by one of Bangladesh’s biggest garment export companies, Ha-Meem, and produces for global retailers including Gap.
The events of the Ashulia fire, which saw female workers jumping to their deaths from the 10th and 11th floors as fire exits were blocked, horribly echo the events of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. March 25th this year marks the centenary of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory disaster in New York. In that incident 146 young female garment workers were killed, again largely because fire exits were either locked or blocked. It remains one of the city’s biggest industrial disasters and marked the birth of the labor rights movement in the US. The victims are commemorated in a museum and many books. But in places like Bangladesh and Cambodia there are so many garment fires that they barely register. 
See also this documentary – Struggling to Stitch – produced by Nadia Sussman which takes a look look inside New York’s contemporary garment industry, where day laborers are hard pressed to find paying jobs.
Full Description of the Work
Terrible Karma is a mobile sound and photographic installation exploring the transnational reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, on its 100th anniversary. Terrible Karma works from the premise that ‘sound is haunting… a presence whose location in space is ambiguous and whose existence in time is transitory’ (David Toop), meshing oral histories of Triangle fire survivors with audio recordings of mega-scale garment factories in Qingyuan, China and protest songs of present-day garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia to invoke the contemporary and transnational resonances of the Triangle fire.
The work ‘takes to the streets’ on March 25th, 2011 when the sound and photographs will be projected out of a van driven through the streets of New York, stopping at various points to allow passers-by to experience the work from inside the claustrophobic confines of the van. Terrible Karma presents spaces and times as folded, allowing distant presences, events, and people to become more intimate and the contemporary resonances of the Triangle Fire to reverberate. This event, which mingles sounds and voices from different times and places, is not simply a memorial for the women killed in the New York factory fire, but an exploration of the constraints and conditions in which women continue to work, live and die.
Urban areas like New York, Qingyuan, Dhaka and Phnom Penh fold into each other as we trace the rhythm of the needle’s stitch over a century. The work follows that rhythm, in its benign existence as women’s work, until the intensity of repetition, of needle-piercing-cloth catches fire. It is this repetitive quality—of machine rhythms, of movement circumscribed, of fire, of no escape—that we draw upon to create a space where interactivity with the spectral might occur.
Adeola and Merle met at the workshop Experimenting with Geography: See, Hear, Make-Do at the University of Edinburgh, May 3rd-7th 2010. This week-long international training school was dedicated to developing a diverse range of craft skills associated with audio, visual and site-specific methodologies and involved hands-on practical workshops led by leading creative practitioners from the sonic and visual arts. On meeting and realizing the affinities of their research interests and creative practices they decided that they wanted to collaborate on a project and Terrible Karma was set in motion.
Adeola Enigbokan is an artist, researcher, writer and teacher based in New York City. Her work is all about the experience of living in cities today. She has presented work in a variety of formats in diverse venues: at the ConfluxCity Festival, Anthology Film Archive in New York, The Royal Institute for British Architects, London and the Van Leer Institute, Jerusalem. She teaches Urban Studies, Media Studies, Sociology and Anthropology at universities in New York City, while completing a doctorate in Environmental Psychology at the City University of New York. For examples of past work go to: http://www.archivingthecity.com
Dr Merle Patchett is a cultural geographer and freelance curator. Her past four years of research were dedicated to the exploration of human and animal lives connected through the cultural practice of taxidermy, and wholly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This project critically examined the craft worlds and knowledge-practices of taxidermists, past and present, and their material culture of animal remains. To date, she has published on this research in international peer-reviewed journals and has been a co-curator of taxidermy artwork exhibitions at the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.
Merle is presently based in Edmonton where she is developing a creative practice as an ‘experimental geographer’, part of which includes curating the forthcoming exhibition Fashioning Feathers: Dead Birds, Millinery Crafts and the Plumage Trade (www.fashioningfeathers.com) in association with the Material Culture Institute, University of Alberta.
 The final fatality list has still not been fully disclosed.
 The information in this section is taken from Lucy Siegle’s article “Why we must own up to the human cost of our obsession with cheap clothes”, in The Observer Sunday December 19th 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/dec/19/cheap-clothes-bangladesh-lucy-siegle
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